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March 16, 2008

More Swazis dependent on food aid

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A substantial increase in the number of Swazis requiring food aid has raised some questions in this Southern African country. Why the rise, and how long are the higher numbers likely to prevail? More fundamentally, what has caused such widespread and enduring hunger to begin with?

"We need to dig deeper for answers, particularly when we hear donor fatigue may cut into the emergency contributions that are now keeping Swazis alive," says Charles Dlamini, a food-aid distribution manager in the central Manzini region.

In his annual budget speech, delivered to Parliament recently, Finance Minister Majozi Sithole noted that 665 000 Swazis out of a total population of 953 000 now require food assistance.

Only a few months ago, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) had projected that 407 000 people would need food aid by this time. Rains since the start of the planting season in November had even raised hopes of fewer dependants.

In interviews with government and humanitarian officials, and with persons on small farms and in urban settlements affected by food shortages, there emerges a variety of explanations for the current situation.

"I have been urging for months that people take advantage of the rains and plant crops like in other years. The back of last year's drought has been broken. But some people are wary of planting; they remember how the rains stopped falling in the past and all their work went for nothing," says Ben Nsibandze, chairperson of the national emergency management committee.

Last year's drought was historic: up to 80% of crops failed in formerly productive areas, while harvests were absent in hardest-hit regions. The international community stepped in to assist.

"Unfortunately, the lesson learned by some people is that they don't have to worry if they have no crops. They will be given food. They will be provided for. This laziness has led to dependency, and it is why many fields were not ploughed this year," says Dlamini.

Fears about a culture of dependency have also been voiced by others. Nsibandze has warned against it, as has legislator Trusty Gina. "The dependency syndrome is killing the nation," he told Parliament recently.

About 80% of Swazis live as subsistence farmers on land overseen by chiefs, existing much as generations of their ancestors did. When rains cease, people require food aid to avoid starvation.

"Government hoped that rural men working for the agricultural plantations could support their families on their wages," says an economist with a bank in the capital, Mbabane, in reference to estates where export crops such as sugar cane and citrus are grown. "But wages are low, and inflation is high."

The Ministry of Agriculture mounted an agriculture summit last August to seek answers to Swaziland's perennial food-shortage problems. In addition to the government, the private sector, UN groups and farmers participated. But to date no report of the summit's outcome has been released, and no suggestions offered on how to return Swaziland to the position it occupied in the 1970s of being a net food exporter.

Aids is another contributing factor to the dearth of food in this country; at 33,4%, the country's adult HIV prevalence rate is the highest in the world.

"There are no able-bodied people to tend the farms; the surviving elderly people and children can't do it," says Nonhlanhla Simelane, an HIV counsellor in Mbabane. "Wage earners in town used to come back to the farm to tend the crops, but we see less of that because Aids mortality is as high in urban areas as in the countryside."

Aids groups see the nation's food shortage very much as a health issue, and they doubt that production will return to normal before the pandemic has been brought under control.

Greed may also be playing a role. According to Sipho Shongwe, Minister of Regional Development and Youth Affairs, the numbers of people in need of food aid have been inflated by local authorities seeking to sell supplies for cash. Similarly, school principals are accused of trying to profit from aid claimed for Aids orphans.

"One wonders what lessons on morality our children will learn from principals who are guilty of deliberately increasing the number of orphans in their schools," says Shongwe. Himself a Swazi chief, he also accuses other chiefs of fraud in connection with food aid.

Yet, there are no hard figures showing the extent of the alleged misappropriation, and food aid organisations doubt this appreciably raises the total of aid recipients.

"I don't think that cheating is raising the overall number of recipients that much. They say officials want to sell the food. Sell to whom? Sixty percent of the local population lives in absolute poverty, and part of the food crisis is [that] they cannot purchase basic foodstuffs," says a programme officer with a UN agency.

The WFP office in Mbabane says that its food-distribution system is based on information from local community committees that canvas homes to establish need. The same holds true for children's care points in urban and rural areas, where local committees send orphans and vulnerable children for hot meals provided by WFP contributors, primarily the United States.

What, then, will it take for Swaziland to cease being a country in perpetual want?

"I think most importantly we need the political will to find solutions. I think the national leadership has become comfortable with food dependency as well," says Dlamini. "As long as the international community is giving, why bother?"

Even with much of the nation requiring food aid, "leadership doesn't act like it is a crisis ... I think that is why the emergency agriculture summit never amounted to anything."


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